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The conversations with Swedes about race that broke my brain

Since arriving in what she thought was liberal Sweden, Shandana Mufti has been surprised to find conversations she has had with Swedes about race often reveal a surprising ignorance.

The conversations with Swedes about race that broke my brain
A window was smashed at Lund University student organisation Hallands Nation after they held a "slave auction" at a student party. Photo: Johan Nilsson/SCANPIX

Sweden is strange.

On the one hand, it has been a fairly easy country to move to, especially for higher education. It took in thousands of Syrian refugees during the height of the refugee crisis – several times more than fellow Scandinavian countries Norway and Denmark. (Of course, Sweden’s immigration policies are expected to change significantly under the new government.)

But on the other hand, conversations in Sweden about race – race as an undeniable reality that shapes peoples’ experiences in a fairly homogenous society – are at worst unbelievably ignorant.

Take, for example, a slave auction held by Hallands Nation, a student society, at Lund University in 2011. Three people in black face, ropes tied around their necks, were led into a party by a white “slave trader”. Over the course of the evening’s event, the “slaves” were auctioned off. 


I learned about this slave auction at an exhibition about hate crimes at Malmö Museer, which I attended as part of my coursework for a class on Media and Diversity at Lund University. As I was staring aghast at a board about this slave auction, which took place a mere decade ago, a classmate nudged me. He gestured toward a police officer’s cap in a glass case. This cap was positioned not far from portraits of men and women who had been victims of hate crimes, based on their racial, religious, or gender identities. In this exhibition, organised in partnership with the police, the police positioned themselves as victims of hate crimes as well. 

I completed my undergraduate studies as an international student in the United States, which perhaps means I’m more attuned to the horrors of chattel slavery than the average Swede. But this slave auction happened in 2011, at a point in the internet era when it would have been easy enough to Google “slave auction good idea?”

This museum trip came on the heels of my first brush with discourse on race in Sweden. Picture this: my first date since moving to Sweden a month earlier, with a Swedish guy who seemed nice enough, and who was aware that I am not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swede. We met for fika at a cosy café in Lund. After the usual hellos and how-are-yous, he pulled out the topic that had clearly been on his mind for a while: “When is it okay for non-black people to say the n-word?” He would hate this article for the way I’ve written out the n-word here, because he insisted that it’s important it be spelled out in full, so he can know whether the author’s intent was for it to end in -er or -ah. Why? I’m not sure, his explanation went over my head.

He argued passionately for the rights of the elderly to use the n-word, including in reference to their caretakers. What about the rights of those caretakers to a safe, non-hostile workplace? Again, his explanation for why racist slurs uttered by old people should never be corrected went over my head – something about them being old and set in their ways, and their racism being essentially harmless.

He laughed at Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, and argued that black Americans should just arm themselves if they don’t feel safe in their streets. Then he moved on from contemporary events and to historical ones. While born and raised in Sweden, he has one Belgian parent. And so, this guy cracked jokes about King Leopold “mowing his lawn” as he enacted the unimaginable atrocities that resulted in millions of deaths in the Congo when it was a Belgian colony. I could not get away from this date fast enough.

Anyway, I didn’t get any better at filtering out people after this experience. Another guy I went out with several times let his nationalism fly on our last date, when he told me confidently, “Sweden is the best country in the world.” This was the theme of a two-hour lecture he delivered as I sipped my beer and tried to think of the best way to end the ordeal. Don’t get me wrong – I do love living in Sweden. But the best country in the world theme grew old fast. He explained that although Sweden’s zero tolerance drug policy is not a successful model, Sweden is still trying – which makes it the best country in the world. He told me that although the Systembolaget system is irritating and inconvenient, it shows how Sweden tried to curb rampant alcoholism – which makes it the best country in the world. Fair enough.

And then it got really interesting, when he decided to argue that Swedish racism is real – but that because it is subtle, it is also the best racism in the world. This is the moment that my brain truly broke, because how do you argue with that?

It’s not all bad though. As I mentioned earlier, I did my bachelors in the United States, where the topic of Palestine and Israel is an extremely fraught one, including on university campuses. I plan to write my master’s thesis on a topic that incorporates the subject of Palestine’s occupation, something that I would never have dreamed of broaching if I were still in the United States. And so, in many ways, while conversations around race and identity seem to be lagging decades behind in Sweden, in others, I am surprised by the opportunities to explore topics that are taboo elsewhere.

That said, come on. Racism, no matter how “subtle,” is never benign.

Last month, David Crouch wrote for The Local about the failures of Sweden’s race-blind approach to collecting data about its population. Under a system of race blindness, racism as a form of systemic and structural oppression can never be dismantled because it is never acknowledged. And consequently, you, too, might find yourself at a party that turns into a slave auction.

I hope you won’t.   

Member comments

  1. Thank you Shandana for a thoughtful article. I often struggle to communicate the importance of some of these issues to my non-American friends. Some understand, others often tell me that “Americans are always so unecessarily focused on race, we don’t have your problems here”. I think the subtlety of Swedish racisim and the lack of complex language for it really does damage in the same way that unintentional racism among white progressives in the United States does. People can say, “I’m not racist, I voted for Obama!”/”We’re not racist we brought in people from Syria!” ~ Wonderful, great job~ but you can’t use this as a free ticket to ignore history, everyone’s role in instiutionalized racism, or to feign being an activist. I am proud of Sweden for so many things and I have faith this nation may yet come together to address these issues in a good way.

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For members


LIST: Sweden’s biggest seven ‘me-too’ cases

The Christian Democrats' former Party Secretary Johan Ingerö, who was dismissed on Tuesday with immediate effect, is the most senior politician in Sweden to lose his job to a sexual misconduct allegation since the 'me too' movement exploded in 2017. Here's a quick recap of 'me too' in Sweden.

LIST: Sweden's biggest seven 'me-too' cases

The ‘me-too’ movement broke out after a report on the extent of sexual assault accusations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, and saw women across the world name-and-shame high-profile people in politics they accused of behaving sexually inappropriately, sexually assaulting, or sexually harassing them. 

In Sweden, as elsewhere, the movement has had by far its biggest impact in the cultural sphere. We look at some of the biggest cases. 


Tomas Eneroth (Social Democrats)

The former Social Democrat infrastructure minister, Tomas Eneroth, was in November 2021 accused of groping a female colleague at a party congress. Eneroth apologised for making his accuser uncomfortable and said he had not intended to touch her inappropriately. 

Eneroth’s home district in the Social Democratic party investigated that accusation and decided not to take any action against Eneroth. 

A public prosecutor dropped the case after interviewing witnesses present, saying that the contact had been “a fleeting touch” that could not be considered sexual harassment.

Kjell Ekelund (Social Democrats). 

Kjell Ekelund, a Social Democrat regional politician in Jönköping, was found guilty in court and fined for slapping a party colleague’s bottom during a party conference in 2022. Carina Ödebrink, the regional chair of the Social Democrats, only called on him to step down after he was found guilty, but he was not expelled from the party. 

Peter Lundgren (Sweden Democrats) 

The former Sweden Democrat MEP Peter Lundgren announced that he was leaving his party in March 2022, after he was found guilty of sexually molesting a party colleague in a hotel room three-and-a-half years previously. 

“After talks with Peter Lundgren we have come to a decision that the judgement in the high court makes it impossible for him to represent the party. He is therefore going to leave his membership in the party,” Sweden Democrat press secretary Christian Krappedal told TT. 

The Sweden Democrats party took no action to expel Lundgren until he was found guilty in court. He continued in his role as an independent MEP. 


Jean-Claude Arnault and the Nobel crisis

The accusations against Jean-Claude Arnault, the French husband of Katarina Frostenson, a senior member of the Swedish Academy, caused the award of the Nobel Price in Literature to be postponed for a year, and ended with Arnault being jailed for rape. 

The accusations against Arnault were first published in a series of articles in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in which some 13 women, most of them anonymous, came forward to accuse Arnault, who had significant power in Sweden’s literary world through his cultural club Forum, of aggressive and inappropriate sexual behaviour, and even rape. 

One of the women later reported him for rape to the police, and he was found guilty both in Stockholm District Court and when the case went to appeal at the High Court. 

Martin Timell 

The Swedish TV presenter Martin Timell was removed by the broadcaster TV4 from the programmer Äntligen hemma (finally home) in 2017 after he was accused of sexual harassment, and the channel later stopped any work with Timell. 

Timell was reported for rape in November 2017, and was found innocent of all charges both in court and at appeal.  He received 8.9m kronor in damages from TV4. 

Benny Frederiksen 

Frederiksen was CEO and theatre chief at Stockholm City Theatre. He resigned in December 2017 after he was hit by accusations of presiding over a culture of sexual harassment at the theatre. He committed suicide in March 2018, after which a preliminary report from the investigation the theatre launched into the allegations concluded that there were in fact no one at the theatre had accused him of sexually inappropriate behaviour. 

Fredrik Virtanen

After Jean-Claude Arnault, Sweden’s most high-profile ‘me-too’ case have been that against the culture journalist Fredrik Virtanen. 

Cissi Wallin, an actress and feminist commentator, on October 16th 2017, accused Virtanen of raping her in 2006, even though she had reported the alleged rape to the police in 2011 and the case had been laid down. 

Virtanen was first suspended from his job at Aftonbladet, then deprived of his column, and then fired. 

In January 2018, Virtanen sued Wallin for libel. She was found guilty, fined, and ordered to pay Virtanen 80,000 kronor in damages. When she appealed, Sweden’s high court increased the damages to 100,000 kronor.